Friday, November 16, 2012

Mind the Gap! in Sustainability Reporting

As a Sustainability Consultant and Reporter who is quite accessible here on the net, I am often approached by students from all corners of the world, sometimes corners which I didn't know existed, to help them with their research and studies on many different aspects of CSR and Sustainability and Reporting. I do my best to respond to all - apologies if anyone has written to me and I didn't. Such interactions both give me the opportunity to make a modest contribution to advancing sustainability thinking and also, invariably, help me learn new things. Occasionally, some of those who have asked for my advice or help, come back to update me about how their work has gone, which is always a delight.
Today, I got the fabulous news that a group of  Masters students with whom I spent some engaging time in discussion on their research, have won the top award for their thesis in the area of Sustainability Reporting. Edwin Janssen, Selene Kfoury and Rutger Verkouw submitted their thesis for the completion of Master of Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden, and will receive a prestigious award from the Sparbankensstiftelsen Kronan later this month. Wonderful recognition for their hard work, and also the quality of their thesis, which is highly topical these days, as we debate whether G4 will be the Next Big Thing, or whether Integrated Reporting will serve anyone other than investors, and whether Sustainability Reporting is actually helping us to change the world.

The thesis is entitled: "Mind the Gap! Strategically Driving GRI Reporting Towards Sustainability", and can be downloaded here. The writers make a case for an integrated process to support Sustainability Reporting.

Here is the abstract:  "Sustainability reporting is a vital tool to communicate an organisation’s sustainability performance to stakeholders. Sustainability reporting also allows an organisation to communicate its vision, goals and strategic plans. In order to be strategic towards sustainability, an organisation should have a vision of where it wants to go, and assess where it is today, so as to take the right initiatives towards its vision. This thesis focuses on how GRI sustainability reporting and strategic planning towards sustainability can be combined in an integrated process to help organisations move towards sustainability. The Integrated Process allows an organisation to gain a better understanding of its sustainability context; design resilient strategies in light of that context using a backcasting from Sustainability Principles approach; and report its sustainability performance and progress in bridging the gap towards sustainability, transparently to internal and external stakeholders."

Doesn't that sound compelling? There is a difference between Integrated Reporting and Sustainability Reporting using an integrated process. The former may be an outflow of the latter, but not necessarily. On the contrary, I can very easily buy into the integrated process concept, but I have a harder time buying into the Integrated Reporting concept.

The writers come down very strongly on there being a strong interrelationship between sustainability context, sustainability strategy and sustainability reporting and that sustainability reporting is most effective when driven by a strategic approach to sustainability. Sustainability strategy should be determined against a backdrop of four core principles articulated here:

In order to support the route to more strategic sustainability reporting, the authors offer a Framework which has four steps and uses the process of backcasting (identifying the vision and working back to determine what needs to be done to align with the vision) to help create strategic sustainability reports. The authors examine the GRI framework and how it makes a contribution, as well as creating some limitations.

As usual, it was a pleasure to engage with our new generation of committed future business leaders, and I am sure we will be hearing much more from Edwin, Selene and Rutger in the future!


elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices Contact me via   on Twitter or via my business website  (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)


Henk Hadders said...

Nice post Elaine, also touching on the context of Context. I'm reading their thesis right now. I respect your "open-mindedness". Did I notice some movement on your part? Perhaps we will even be discussing a context-based GRI-G4 guideline in Amsterdam next year, with this new generation ;-)

Best wishes, be well and take care in these troublesome times


elaine said...

Hi Henk, thanks for reading and commenting. I think I always acknowledged that the theory of context-based sustainability holds some appeal and is theoretically a valid option, and I respect your views on this (as well as those of Bill Baue who never misses an opportunity to remind me of this also!). My issue is with the practicability of applying that concept to businesses, and the validity of the calulations which may not take other mitigating factors into account. It's a resolution that most businesses will not be able to achieve satisfactorily, not in my lifetime anyway,and my view is that it may serve to move us away from the bigger issue which is improving performance not benchmarking it. So, I acknoweldge the student team's need for context in their thesis, and agree with it, but I choose to interpret it in a less rigorous way, which is closer to the current GRI approach today. At present, the G4 exposure draft does not move in this direction.... do you know something that I don't know? :) Thanks for good wishes, doing our best to stay safe here, managed ok so far:) Look forward to meeting up in Amsterdam in May. elaine

Bill Baue said...

Hey Elaine & Henk,

Great to see a blog about this exciting research. And thanks to Elaine for invoking me, which I'll take as an invitation to comment.

Let me start with where we agree: yes, we do indeed need to improve performance toward sustainability.

However, we have a longstanding disagreement on how we improve sustainability performance. My starting point is to define sustainability in a disciplined way, by positing a line between sustainability and unsustainability (which can be adapted to respond to better information as it becomes available.) Without such a line, how do companies know when they've improved performance sufficiently? And more importantly, how do they prioritize the allocation of scarce (human and financial) resources toward the sustainability impacts most in need of improvement? Without measuring progress toward sustainability, companies might throw all sorts of resources at the sustainability of their water management when they are actually performing sustainably there, but are not paying sufficient attention to the sustainability of their mitigation of solid waste, which may in fact be much more unsustainable. This is obviously an illustrative hypothetical example, but I trust you get what I mean.

As well, at a fundamental level, GRI tells organizations that they need to report their performance according to the sustainability context principle. No ambiguity there. So the idea that we can postpone addressing sustainability context until after our lifetime simply doesn't square with GRI's guidelines. Logically speaking, GRI would need to delete its sustainability context principle, or else it makes sense to expect organizations to measure, manage, and report on their social, environmental, and economic impacts "in the context of the limits and demands placed on environmental or social resources at the sectoral, local, regional, or global level" (to quote GRI). It makes no sense to have a Principle that you expect those using your guidelines to ignore.

Have you seen the G4 Public Comment Letter Submitted by 66 members of the Sustainability Context Group advocating for more guidance on susty context (and providing a functional specification, as well as general and specific examples)?

Or the Public Comment letter from the SustyContextGroup on the GHG Emissions Thematic Revision?

I spoke with GRI directly, and they said that this input is factoring into several Working Group discussions, a fact confirmed independently by Working Group members.

As for the mistaken belief that a context-based approach to sustainability is too complex to implement, have you seen the work on this front by BT, Autodesk, EMC, Mars, Ford, Cabot, and Ben & Jerry's? See the links in the GHG Emissions letter for more on this work.

As well, did you hear about the partnership between WBCSD and the Stockholm Resilience Centre for integrating SRC's 9 Planetary Boundaries work into WBCSD's Vision 2050 work.

Elaine, I trust that this is sufficient documentation to make a solid case for the necessity and viability of implementing sustainability context. I look forward to hearing back from you on this case.


Jernej said...

Hi all,

a collection of links to articles / websites about "sustainability context" is here:


Martin Thomas said...

Hi Elaine, Long time since we spoke. Nice to see friends in this boat. I have been working with Bill and Mark for the last year on context-based sustainability. It seems to me to be the only route that offers a framework that indicates sufficiency of effort in a meaningful context.The masters dissertation seems absolutely right to my eyes (but then what would you expect from Prof Robert's students?!). I do not believe CBS needs to be so tough to comply with. Its implementation needs to be sensitive to the context of the host organisation. However, I do acknowledge that the whole learning journey will last well beyond our working lives. What makes you think it could be shorter? Regards, Martin

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